The Buffalo Firefighters Story: A
Testament to Courage, Commitment and Compassion


The Buffalo Firefighters Story: A
Testament to Courage, Commitment and Compassion


The Rescue and Awakening of Don Herbert
A month after Buffalo firefighter Don Herbert was rescued from an attic of a burning house, WIVB-TV senior correspondent Rich Newberg and photographer Tom Vetter reported on the dedication and sacrifices of those who fight fires for a living.

On December 28, 1995, Herbert became trapped after the roof collapsed. He ran out of oxygen before fellow firefighters could locate him. They saved his life but he suffered from brain damage and blindness.

Rich Newberg visited the veteran firefighter whose speech was impaired but who was determined to do anything necessary to regain his strength and communication skills. Despite his strength of character and will to survive, Herbert later lapsed into a decade-long coma.

On April 30, 2005, Don Herbert suddenly awakened and made international news when he began talking to family members and friends as if it were yesterday. He had been given drugs normally used to treat Parkinson’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression.

Anderson Cooper, reporting for CBS’s 60 Minutes, produced a major story on what many were calling a “miraculous awakening.” Herbert broke into tears when a fellow firefighter told him he had been unresponsive for about ten years.

Subsequently, Don Herbert took a fall out of bed, which again weakened his condition. He developed pneumonia and passed away on February 21, 2006.

Herbert left behind a wife and four sons. Two became firefighters. The amazing story of his awakening gave hope to families with brain damaged loved ones in a coma. Herbert will always be remembered for his bravery and courage as part of a rescue team, and for his desire to do the very best he could under debilitating circumstances.

The Ultimate Sacrifice on North Division Street
On December 27, 1983, a propane tank explosion at a four story radiator warehouse in Buffalo claimed the lives of five Buffalo firefighters. It remains the largest single day loss of life in the history of the Buffalo Fire Department. In addition, two civilians living near the warehouse were killed in their home.

The explosion occurred shortly after the firefighters arrived on the scene, responding to the call of a propane gas leak. All five crew members from Ladder 5 were killed instantly. Eleven others were injured when the blast occurred. There were more injuries during rescue efforts. More than 150 civilians were taken to hospitals.The warehouse was destroyed as were buildings within a four-block radius. It was later determined that the 500 gallon propane tank had been illegally housed in the warehouse.

A memorial service honoring the memory of the fallen firefighters takes place every year on December 27th at 8:23 p.m., the time of the explosion. It is held at fire call box number 191 at the intersection where the explosion took place.

Buffalo Firefighters Respond to 9/11 Attacks at Ground Zero
When the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were attacked and destroyed by terrorists on 9/11/2001, Lt. Tony Liberatore, now a captain in the Buffalo Fire Department, said at the time, “A group of us felt we had to go there and we had to go there now. So we got there as quick as we possibly could.”

WIVB’s Lisa Flynn and photographer Steve Beauchamp produced a segment for the hour special, “Day of Sorrow: Year of Change,” featuring the role Buffalo firefighters played in recovery efforts at Ground Zero. They called the story, “Forever Changed.”

In the year following the attack, Liberatore returned to New York City, helping to train firefighter recruits. Flynn reported that the recruits were “desperately needed to fill the loss of 343 firefighters and a host of others who retired…”


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Our big story tonight, honoring the men and women who put their lives at risk for our safety.

Injured firefighter Don Herbert was at the top of the list he was injured. Five months ago. His recovery has been slow. And tonight his family accepted the honors in his behalf. John Herbert's youngest son four year old Nicky throughout a ceremonial pitch before tonight's Bison's game. Some of those honored tonight died in the line of duty. Don Herbert miraculously survived this house fire on interim Park Avenue after being buried under burning debris for 12 minutes and brought back to life by his fellow firefighters. Don Herbert's progress has been slow but steady according to his family. His wife Linda told him he was among those being honored tonight.

And he said it sounded like it was going to be a good time. And he was happy so I just hope that it sticks with him.

Even five months after his rescue Don Herbert short term memory comes and goes he also still hasn't regained his sight and adding to the pain for his family is the new report from the fire department critical and part of the way the blaze that inner Park Avenue was fought.

Definitely the firemen themselves are not to be at any blame. They did everything they could and probably beyond what anybody would expect it out.

Don Herbert was still not well enough to attend tonight's tribute. His family was later treated to the game, but his 13 year old Tommy Herbert watch the action on the field. He can only think of his brother throwing out that first pitch. No, he wished his dad could see it was just hoping that like they can see it one of these days.

Today's tribute was organized by the 100 Club of Buffalo, which is providing more than a million dollars to families and men and women who have lost their lives in the line of duty. In Buffalo tonight, it is time to meet the man the entire city has been pulling for firefighter Dawn Herbert. He was severely injured while battling a blaze several months ago today. He invited us into his hospital room.

Okay, Progress for Don Herbert is measured in small steps these days. You feel pretty good okay, let's no one knew if he would ever walk or talk again when he was pulled from a burning house after the roof collapsed on top of him. He was buried under rubble for 12 minutes and it stopped breathing after his air pack ran out. He was brought back to life by his buddies paid off but this is from his fellow firefighters now bring a smile to his face. There's a kind of closeness here similar to what he shows his own family. This is a man who still thrives on challenges. His wife Linda and I, for example, asked him about his progress on the parallel bars the peril of their room. Zero is a very, he wants to tackle something more difficult. The Interpark fire damaged part of Don's brain which also affects his eyesight, but it couldn't burn out His Spirit. Hugs of course are part of his therapy. And everyone wants to get into the act. Don's family has given him tremendous support and encouragement, hoping for small signs of progress but realizing his very survival is in itself something of a miracle.

We got more than we had counted on in the beginning. I mean, they told us he was not going to come out of a coma and we've heard him talk and he's got a wonderful heart. He's just wonderful to be around. I guess. We're asking.

Father, Son, son to father there is communication here, which means prayers have been answered. According to Linda Herbert.

You know, it's one thing to have faith and believe that when you're tested, I think that's when it really comes down. And this has been a test of faith that I hope nobody ever has to go through
a great handshake Holy mackerel. I had the privilege of meeting a real hero today, who still exemplifies courage and strength of character as he goes from fighting fires. To fighting for a life worth living. A benefit for Don Herbert will be held this Friday from 2pm until midnight at the OD and tickets are $20.

Don Herbert was a firefighter in Buffalo, New York on December 29 1995. He was battling a house fire when the building's roof collapsed. Don was trapped under a pile of debris and nearly suffocated a local news camera captured firefighters pulling Don from an adequate window. By the time his wife Linda and four sons reached the hospital. Dawn was already in a coma.

I remember pleading and begging with him in the hospital when he was unresponsive. Just you know, don't leave me Don't leave the kids. You know. We need to you know we need to try to get them to squeeze your hand or over toe or something like that. It just we're looking for just about anything done. Herbert did regain consciousness but a few months later slipped into a minimally conscious state. He can respond to some stimuli, but was unable to communicate. Move to a nursing home he was kept alive by a feeding tube and take them to one neurologists and I was basically begging him, you know to tell me is he going to get better or isn't he and he just sort of said well look at him. What do you see? You see what I see there's nothing there and I was just devastated.

While Don languished in the nursing home, years passed, and his four boys grew into men determined to keep their father in their lives. Linda brought dawn to birthdays and holidays, but says he sat slumped in his wheelchair unaware of his surroundings. What was it like as a kid growing up? See your dad there?

I think after 10 years of seeing him hooked up to a feeding tube and different machines that you can sort of get used to it or something-- I really never did and it made me sick to my stomach to go. No, I didn't go that often because I just couldn't stand seeing him like that.

And then one day two years ago, the nursing home called with shocking news. Dawn had woken up was asking for his family. One of the nurses lent the Herberts a video camera to record Don's incredible awakening. His first words were a struggle, he hadn't spoke in nearly a decade. The family members and buddies from the firehouse rushed to Don's room. Blinded in the accident, Don recognized everyone by their voice, everyone that is except his youngest son Nick, who was just four when his dad was injured.

He still thought that I was really young and he went to like put his hand out to tell and to see how tall I was. And we just kept telling him to raise his hand higher because he was trying to feel for me.

When he learns that he has been gone for 10 years, and he seems heartsick about it. Oh, yeah. You can. The sadness is palpable.

He felt so bad. He thought it like he had banded us he felt so bad that he wasn't there for the boys.

Did it feel like an opportunity to say stuff that you never thought you would have?

Yeah, here's my chance to really tell him about me. Trying to make him feel proud.

Don Herbert's reunion with his family was brief. While trying to get out of bed he fell and suffered another brain injury. He later contracted pneumonia, and less than a year after he woke up, Don Herbert died. His Awakening was celebrated as a miracle and a family member has written a book about it. But Dr. Nicholas Schiff and neurologists at Weill Cornell Medical Center says Though rare, he's seen other startling recoveries and believes Don Herbert's story should be a wake up call for doctors.

When I went to medical school, like 20 years ago, there were very various kinds of one liners you get in medical school about ways ways of understanding problem and the one liner you get about brain injury was damaged, that what's done is done. What's done is done structural brain injuries unchanging so with people with patients and minimally conscious state, it's not true to say what's done is done.

I think we know enough now to know that there are some minimally conscious state patients where that statement is false.

A roof collapse left him in a coma for 10 years, but there was that one day that caught the world's attention. And that was 10 years ago today that some believe a medical miracle happened right here in Western New York.

It was the day that fall on buffalo firefighter Don Herbert woke up from a coma news for George Richard is here with a look back. George, was a day that caught the medical world's attention and gave hope to other families who have loved one suffering brain trauma. Today I sat down with Don Herbert's son.

It was just a big shock to get that phone call.

Patrick Herbert will never forget the day in 2005 when his mother called him saying dad's talking. Buffalo firefighter Donald Herbert had been in a coma for the previous nine years that Britain rushed to the nursing home to see his dad.

And he parked right up looked around and said, No, it's just amazing for 16 special hours that the friends and family poured in. Patrick introduced his future wife for the first time. And it was great to be able to talk to him and Tom on my account before so just looking back at that that's that was the greatest thing. I have.

But he wouldn't last the experiment of drugs that would normally treat attention deficit or Parkinson's disease only worked for a day. He died a year later. But to this day, his name is still on the side of buffaloes rescue one where he served that night in 1996 when a roof collapsed on him, causing permanent brain damage. Rescue one now happens to be where Patrick works, in fact of the poor boys in the family, to our buffalo firefighters to our buffalo police officers following in the footsteps that he taught them with hard work and civil service.

We pretty much wouldn't be where we're at without him. So I'm sure he's more than more than pleased looking down on us.

A relative of the Herbert family actually wrote a book about that day. It's called The Day Donnie Herbert Woke Up

It was described as a sea of fire in the city of Buffalo. Firefighters had arrived at a warehouse fire when suddenly there was an explosion.

The walls came down on him and as clear as that. There's I'm sure you saw the trucks that are damaged and then they were right next to him and and that's a way to happen.

Among the known dead are five firefighters. As many as 70 people were injured. One nearby hospital filled up so quickly. It had to airlift some of the injured to other hospitals. homes as far as nine blocks away had windows blown out walls and ceilings crumbled from the shockwaves

I tried to grab a little baby, two years old. She blew one way and I blew the other way enough we all hit the floor and the ceiling just kept falling on us.

The warehouse and church and several homes were destroyed. Buffalo's Mayor James Griffin declared a five day state of emergency in his city and asked Governor Cuomo for aid.

It devastated this whole area. It must have been a terrific explosion. I understand windows were blown out in all areas of our city because of this thing and it's just just a tragedy.

There were more than 125 firefighters on the scene. Some said this was one of the worst explosions in the city's history. Rich Newberg for CBS News, Buffalo.

Buffalo is bravest are remembering their fallen brothers tonight. It's been 30 years since the department's darkest day.

While the first call went out on that night of December 27 1983. A huge explosion on North Division Street damaged 12 city blocks. The blast claimed seven lives including five buffalo firefighters.
news fours rich Newburgh was there 30 years ago.

No one was prepared for what happened on December 27 1983. Buffalo firefighters had responded to a report of a large propane leak at a warehouse at North Division and Grosvenor just seconds after the chief announced his arrival an explosion leveled the four story building and shook buildings miles away.

Like a bomb had gone off. Literally it had -- it looked like a warzone. It looked like something I've never seen before something out of Apocalypse Now.

Five buffalo firefighters lost their lives that night. Mickey Catanzaro who had survived Vietnam as a Marine and was a husband and father of four sons was one of them. His wife Jean had gotten a call from a concerned friend after the explosion

Well there has been a terrible propane explosion and it was a very dear friend of ours and he said that they couldn't find Mickey.

Nicholas Catanzaro was Mickey's youngest son. He is now 30 years old and has become a buffalo firefighter. He was nine months old when his father perished in the propane blast.

I just had this urge to be just like him, and I felt like that would be a better gift to my mom than anything is to try and be as much like him as possible.

Nicky Catanzaro says his father was a man of strong character strong enough in life to give his wife the strength to go on to raise four boys strong enough in memory and spirit to give his youngest son the courage to face the unknown on any given day.

I feel like he's he's looking over me every day. And making sure that I'm safe as possible.

It's been 35 years since an explosion blew apart blocks of downtown Buffalo. It still stands as the biggest tragedy ever faced by the buffalo Fire Department. Seven people putting fire firefighters died after responding to a propane gas leak. The department's deadliest fire happened December 27 1983 Tonight, loved ones of some of the victims attending a service honoring their sacrifice. Our Rachel Mongiovi shows us tonight's memorial service.

This is a day that will never be forgotten in Buffalo's history books for many people. The memories of this tragedy are just as painful today as they were 35 years ago at 8:23 hat night firefighters were called to a four story warehouse here on North Division Street. They were responding to reports of a propane leak. Just seconds after firefighters arrived the propane tank detonated the explosion leveled the building and other structures killing seven people and injuring a dozen others. Every year on this day at the exact time, loved Ones gathered to once again remember. The fire department rings out the alarm 191 To honor the five firefighters of ladder five

It's important to remember any that's the only way to honor our fallen is to because remember, because as long as there is a fire department, as long as there's an engine 32 and a ladder five, you know, people will be here every year.

I will say it's sad to see something like this happening. And I hope something like this never happens again anywhere. Because too many innocent people was killed. It was one of the darkest days of Buffalo's history.

This tragedy was in still is the deadliest in Buffalo Fire Department history. A memorial still sits at the first call box 191 at the intersection where this tragedy unfolded in Buffalo Rachel Mongiovi News Four

It was a cataclysmic event that forever changed us as a nation when America and our state was attacked. Western New Yorkers answered the call.

We knew that staying home just wasn't an option. A group of us felt we had to go there and we had to go there now. So we got there as quick as we possibly could.

As New York reeled in the aftermath of 911 local firefighters and emergency workers pack their gear and headed straight for ground zero. They knew only that Americans had been slaughtered and hundreds of their brethren were missing in the Carnage

If there was an accident in Buffalo and these people that are walking in front of me were trapped under a building, New York City would be one of the first people down there. We couldn't stay home. We had to come and do we had to do when everyone was stepping out of their cars and applauding and you know, that was quite dramatic.

The heartfelt appreciation of New Yorkers left a lasting impression on buffalo firefighter Lt. Tony Liberatore. He made friends manning the now familiar bucket brigade with 1000s of fellow firefighters and volunteers. Now Lieutenant Liberatore returns to help train New York City firefighter recruits, recruits desperately needed to fill the loss of 343 firefighters and a host of others who retired in the last year,

September 11. We always felt that there was a great bubble over the United States and wars happened somewhere else. And I think unfortunately, that bubble has been burst. And we realize that we are now as vulnerable as the rest of the world.

It was well it was a nightmare I guess in many ways.

Erie County Emergency Services Chaplain Joe Bain joined the contingent of local volunteer firefighters who also answered the call. Emotions really good home for him, as he watched the funeral of New York Fire Chaplain Michael Judge, his counterpart and fellow Franciscan

So to go away I had to leave the room for a while and we could so it kind of started to hit having been in there many times and then to go and see that smoky rubble that looked like just a war zone and I've never been in a war. only seen it on TV. It was how do you describe it?

In the days that follow the attack denomination did not matter, as 1000s staggered under the weight of uncontrollable grief.

I call it ministry of presence. Doesn't matter what church, synagogue, mosque you're in. You're there with people, no matter who you reached out to a hand came back and that's probably what changed me.

Unspeakable evil, paralyzing grief and incredible destruction did not break the spirit of those who responded. Father Joe saw something special.

When I looked in their eyes and we hugged each other and I was able to pat on the back those dusty dirty people coming out of Ground Zero. I saw the face of God. It's real and talked about putting things in perspective. God is present in churches and synagogues and mosques and I saw the face of God and those people, and then my brother and sister emergency workers. That's God presents to me in a gut, real Way.

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